ARTS & COLLECTIBLES

A LIFETIME OF NURTURING THE HEARTS AND MINDS OF COLLECTORS

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Once a decade ago, Jan David Winitz and his wife, Christine Hunt Winitz, were walking through the Post-Impressionism exhibition at the San Francisco de Young Museum. Jan David, the founder and president of Claremont Rug Company, and Christine, also his business partner, have spent their entire lives studying art and antiques.

He spoke of being entranced by many of the artworks, especially Van Gogh’s “Starry Night Over the Rhone.” He said, “We looked at it from various angles and distances; examined the use of complementary blue and yellow tones, and the textured brushstrokes. We took time to let the painting affect us deeply and left believing that we had recognized what made it a monumental work of art.”

Then, a few weeks later, a friend who is an art historian specializing in European Modernism invited the couple to revisit the exhibition with him.

As they encountered the painting for the second time, their friend began to fill in some background and a deeper perspective. How Van Gogh had been obsessed with painting a night scene for months and actually had dreams about it before discovering the Arles vantage point and waiting for a clear night. How his yellows expressed the twinkling starlight as beneficent in contrast to the harsh gas light reflecting on the water. He quoted from one of the artist’s letters about having a great need for religion and going outside to paint the nighttime sky.

“As we stood there and listened, we realized that during our first encounter with the work, we didn’t fully grasp the entirety of what made it truly extraordinary. While we certainly weren’t uneducated, the painting opened up for us in a much more profound way with the additional tutoring. Our friend’s deep knowledge increased our appreciation, making our second visit altogether more rewarding and enlightening than our first. While Christine and I both had decades of experience connecting to the artistic visions of virtuoso rug weavers and were exceedingly moved by the painting, our ‘personal docent’ expanded our sensibilities and, therefore, our experience enormously.”

Through this experience, Winitz recognized that the method he and his staff have developed to educate clients about Claremont’s 19th century carpets created an experience similar to that he and Christine had as they revisited van Gogh’s masterpiece with their friend. “We comprehended more fully the importance of expert guidance and the exhilaration of the moment when one begins to see at a deeper level.”

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Caucasian Bidjov Shirvan Tribal Rug, 2nd quarter, 19th century

Caucasian Karabagh Tribal Rug, circa 1850

 

From the very beginning, the Winitzs envisioned a different type of Oriental rug store. Since founding Claremont in 1980, they have devoted their lives to creating a one-in-a-world art gallery dedicated entirely to exceptional Persian and Caucasian tribal rugs woven ca. 1800 to ca. 1910. Beginning with 150 rugs mostly from the founders’ own collections, the gallery’s trove now includes 2500 pieces in categories Jan David defined in his Oriental Rug Market Pyramid (on claremontrug.com) as High-Collectible, Connoisseur-Caliber, High-Decorative, and Decorative. He says, “Our goal has always been to provide an elite-level collection of pieces with great visual depth and staying power.”

Recognizing that only a finite number of the hundreds of thousands of Oriental carpets woven reach a level of artistic magnitude that is truly enrapturing, he and Christine spend an enormous amount of time with their international buying team to make acquisitions that meet their studied standards. Enjoying an 80% client return rate, they have learned to seek the rug styles, colors, and designs that their clientele gravitates towards, finding evermore inspiring pieces, no matter how rare, to satisfy their mature sensibilities.

There is a difference between looking at a rug and looking “into” one. This is certainly true for Winitz, even after spending his adult life as an antique rug gallery owner. Even after having spoken at great length with many descendants of antique Oriental rug weavers. And even after having viewed thousands and thousands of rugs, he understands that it is impossible to assimilate the colors and forms in an art-level rug at first glance. “The key is to look more deeply to pick up the nuances and to learn how to look with both your mind and your heart simultaneously.”

And even then, he is sometimes surprised.

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A collector displayed a favorite carpet from his collection, a 170-year-old Persian Mohtasham Kashan, in his Asian-inspired bedroom.

 

He offered two recent experiences illustrating how Claremont’s clients contribute to its success and keep him on his toes. A long-distance client Winitz has known for many years and who he had assisted in building a world-class collection of tribal rugs was on the phone. Winitz was at his computer looking at an image of the 170-yearold Caucasian Shirvan rug his client had recently bought. They were marveling back and forth about its achievements: the sumptuous nomadic wool and a striking use of color striation; the great liberty the weaver had taken with his region’s symbols; the overall harmony that was skillfully created in what was a very spontaneously designed piece. Then Winitz relates, his client exclaimed, “Would you look at that! I have been staring at this piece for hours and until now didn’t see how the weaver snuck in a break in the design. Look near the border how those two motifs differ but work together so seamlessly. Amazing!” Winitz grinned as he said, “I may have been even more surprised than he was. I had looked at the rug numerous times before sending it to him and afterward had a picture of it on my desk for days and hadn’t seen what my client discovered!”

The other experience, he recalled, happened on a recent session furnishing a collector client’s professional office. “With the gentleman’s input, Winitz placed under his conference table a mid19th century Persian Bakshaish Garden Carpet with neutral camelhair tones and a subtle pattern. Then, just two feet away in front of and alongside his desk, the client settled on two bold, exemplary Caucasian rugs in strong colors as a contrast to the atmospheric rug nearby. “It was not a pairing I would typically think of,” Winitz admitted and concluded that this rug combination made for a profoundly harmonious, awe-inspiring statement that transcended established decorative trends. “My client had clearly developed his own ‘artistic eye,’ making our process a truly collaborative one.”

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Persian Mohtasham Kashan, 2nd quarter, 19th century

Persian Tehran Vase Rug, circa 1875

 

Winitz urges his staff of rug consultants to continually express their knowledge, enthusiasm, and what they see in the rugs as encouragement for clients who are new to the genre. “We are in an artcollecting niche where the more that clients learn to engage both their mind and feelings, the more able they are to make purchasing decisions that will stand the test of time.”

Visitors to Claremont’s three-building, four gallery complex in Oakland, CA, have a similar experience that Jan and Christine had at the Post-Impressionism show. Walking through the Claremont door reveals a carefully curated collection of 19th and turn of the 20th-century Oriental rugs created by individual weavers who inhabited villages and towns throughout Persia, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Each rug expresses a perspective of a single weaver or a team of artisans impacted by a 5000-year-old artistic tradition. Just as the Winitzs gained greater insights when accompanied by someone with more profound knowledge at the de Young Museum, visitors to Claremont Rug Company benefit significantly from the expertise of Jan and his staff.

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The author of “A Guide to Purchasing An Oriental Rug” and numerous articles on the subject written over the past 41 years, Winitz has often seen his clients “lose themselves” in the process of viewing and acquiring rugs. “Many of them are executives or entrepreneurs whose lives are caught up in their businesses,” he says, “but when we begin to talk about rugs, what was going to be a 15-minute conversation turns into one that lasts an hour or more. I can see their emotional side take over as they become entranced by the art and beauty they are witnessing, and I am truly touched by how passionate they become.”

“This is the visual impact that the finest rug weavers sought to produce,” he surmises. ‘It is when clients begin to connect with this magical quality in the rugs and experience the emotions a great rug evoke. I can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices.”

Those are moments that he relishes.